Rudolf Hoss, the commandant of Auschwitz (Christian Friedel), his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller) and their children live a very cushy life in a beautiful country villa. Hoss’s place of work though is just the other side of the garden wall and from time to time the sounds of misery can be heard from there – screams, gunshots, orders being barked. But just as people living on a main road can learn to ignore the sound of traffic, the family appears oblivious to these sounds. The very cosy suburban activity of them going about their lives seems totally bizarre and inappropriate in view of the atrocities we know are taking place “next door”, as it were.
The opening of the film is startling for a film about the holocaust, as we see the family enjoying a picnic in the sort of beautiful lakeside setting that we don’t associate with Auschwitz. But it sets the tone of an ordinary family ignoring the horror on their doorstep. The mother has certainly done her duty in producing Aryan children for the Fatherland. I lost track of how many children there were.
It is the coolness and distance of the storytelling, which makes it both chilling and alienating. A lot of it is shot on hidden cameras, as the family get on with ordinary life. There are no close ups, the camera doesn’t move, just records and nothing dramatic happens. The only emotion is when Hedwig passionately refuses to relocate with her husband to Berlin because she is so happy in the Auschwitz villa. And the other time is when summer has gone and winter taken over and one of the children bullies another.
There are though some everyday actions that chill. Hedwig for example trying on an expensive fur coat stolen from one of the prisoners and admiring herself in the mirror. And when the camera moves its focus to Berlin we observe, still in a distant manner, a meeting of the top brass, where they discuss the master plan to eliminate the Jews in the manner of the board of directors in a commercial organisation discussing marketing strategy.
The film is beautifully shot, the beauty contrasting with the horrors we know about but don’t see. The film relies on the viewer’s imagination and previous knowledge of the nightmare in the background contrasted with the banality of their perpetrators’ lives as observed in the foreground in this fly on the wall manner. However that very emotional detachment and coldness in the shooting style mitigates against emotional involvement on the part of the viewer. I admired the film but I have to admit didn’t feel a lot.